Why the GAO Study on Special Education in Charter Schools Gets It Wrong

As the New York Times reports a new GAO study finds that charter schools enroll 3 percent fewer students labeled as special education than traditional public schools:

Across the country, disabled students represented 8.2 percent of all students enrolled during the 2009-10 year in charter schools, compared with 11.2 percent of students attending traditional public schools, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of Department of Education data.

The basic premise of the GAO report is questionable. The assumption that schools with higher rates of special education are some how doing a better job of serving special needs children is suspect–just because you label students does not mean you are serving them. This type of analysis implies that a higher rate of special education designation proves that certain schools are serving special needs children better.

In fact an alternative explanation might be that public schools are better at gaming the funding system by labeling a larger number of children as special education. There has been significant debate over the degree to which the largest special education category of specific learning disability (SLD) reflects a true disability or an instructional failure in reading in the early grades. As education researcher Jay P. Greene has long pointed out in articles such as the “The Myth of the Special Education Burden,” specific-learning disabilities has been the fastest growing category of disability and has grown at a rate much faster than other categories of special education.

A 2002 report from the President’s Commission on Special Education estimated that 80 percent of students who receive an SLD diagnosis-two out of five special education students-are assigned to the program “simply because they haven’t learned how to read.” In a similar vein, an in-depth analysis in Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, a 2001 report published by the Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute, estimates that nearly 2 million children would not have been classified as learning disabled if the public schools they attended had provided proper, rigorous, and early reading instruction. A plausible explanation for the 3 percent differential between charter schools and traditional schools is that many charter schools do a better job of teaching students to read, have agressive early-intervention programs, and simply do not label as many children as special education in the first place.

In a 2003 study, Special Education in Charter Schools and Conventional Public Schools, RAND researchers speculated that charter schools may have a philosophical difference and “choose not to give marginal students an IEP out of a belief that the stigma of special education may cause more harm than benefit to the child.” Congruently, my Reason Foundation study, Special Education Accountability: Structural Reform to Help Charter Schools Make the Grade, surveyed California charter schools and found that school directors reported using aggressive early intervention strategies and remediation strategies to help reduce the rate of special education.

One strategy used by charter schools is “neverstreaming” which is designed to avoid special education placements in the first place. Education researcher Robert Slavin defines neverstreaming as “implementing prevention and early intervention programs powerful enough to ensure that virtually every child is successful in the first place.” The purpose of this approach is-as the name implies-to provide early intervention and services so the child never leaves the general education classroom.

Elk Grove Unified in California is a pioneer of the neverstreaming model. At Elk Grove the neverstreaming model was first implemented during the 1994-95 school year. The goal was to decreasethe number of students referred for special education assessment, improve schoolwide performance,improve staff collaboration, and improve school attendance. In 1999 a California Department of Education evaluation found that special education referrals dropped from about 1,300 during the 1996-97 school year to about 500 during the 1998-99 school year. Schoolwide performance on standardized tests and attendance also improved. Elk Grove has reduced its special education rate from about 17 percent in 1995 to approximately 6 percent of students. In the Reason study several California charter schools replicated this approach to special education.

Ironically, public schools and charter schools that offer services early on and actually reduce their special education population through approaches like “neverstreaming” or other early intervention strategies are often criticized as not properly serving special education students. Schools are often judged by their special education percentagesor rates as evidence of meeting special education obligations rather than their actual academic outcomes for students enrolled in their schools.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that charter schools are working to help students learn on the front end and avoid the special education designation altogether. The GAO report is wrong to suggest that if charter schools and traditional schools had identical special education rates, this would somehow say something about the quality of special education services in either charter schools or traditional schools. Low special education rates are not automatic evidence of a failure to serve students. In fact the opposite may be true. Schools with the highest rates of special education may be failing students early on.